Comment & analysis

Syria’s ‘safe zone’: a new cycle of violence under the banner of ‘security’

11 October 2019 Bilal Sukkar Syria’s ‘safe zone’: a new cycle of violence under the banner of ‘security’

Turkey’s government claims its latest military offensive into north-east Syria will establish a ‘safe zone’ of stability where displaced refugees can resettle. But as Bilal Sukkar argues, this incursion will only fuel tension and lead to future cycles of violence.

Turkey launched its long-threatened military offensive on Wednesday to establish a ‘safe zone’ in north-east Syria. The move is another example of the short-sighted security-driven approach to conflict that leaves more insecurity and resentment in its wake. If this offensive continues, it will have grave humanitarian consequences and will be catastrophic for peace efforts in the north-east, for the conflict between Turkey and its Kurdish opponents, and for Syria’s future.

Dubbed ‘the spring of peace’, the operation has two main objectives. First, it aims to neutralise the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which Turkey labels a terrorist organisation. Second, Turkey claims it will open space for a ‘safe zone’ where at least one million of the more than three million Syrian refugees in Turkey can be resettled.

Will the ‘safe zone’ bring safety?

Despite its audacious messages of ‘safety’, ‘security’ and ‘peace’, Turkey’s operation will undoubtedly bring huge security risks to the people in its path. If the last Turkish offensive against the YPG stronghold in Afrin (which is largely Kurdish) in January 2018 is any indication, civilians will be killed, wounded, harassed, detained, displaced and will have their homes looted. Turkey’s control of Afrin was also followed by cultural and structural violence, such as adorning streets and public buildings with Turkish flags and portraits of President Erdogan, promotion of the Turkish language, and hegemony over administration structures which often led to discrimination against local residents.

In the longer term, the operation will enflame existing ethnoreligious tensions in the region, especially between Arabs and Kurds. Resettling a million Syrian refugees, the majority of whom will likely be Sunni Arab, in the ‘safe zone’ – which includes many Kurdish-majority communities – would create a host of problems and tensions that will amplify Kurdish grievances.[1]

The offensive is also likely to fuel local and external conflict dynamics. The YPG guards prisons with ISIS prisoners and fights sleeper ISIS cells in the region. Relocating many of these forces to defend the frontline could spark a resurgence of ISIS in these areas. It could also force the YPG to turn to the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian backers, who could stand to benefit greatly by expanding its control to the oil-rich areas held by the YPG and by co-opting the decentralised governance structures in the north-east which represented an alternative model of governance to the regime’s authoritarian rule. This is why it is particularly ironic and hypocritical that sections of the political and armed opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime are supporting Turkey’s offensive, especially when forced displacement and demographic engineering are accusations they previously levelled against the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian backers.  

A ‘war on terrorism’?

The Turkish offensive is yet another example of a government justifying a heavy-handed and dangerous military approach to a complex crisis in which it has a strong vested interest as a ‘war on terror’. These approaches have been adopted by a range of countries operating in Syria - including the US, Russia, Iran, Israel, and the Syrian state itself. As Saferworld’s research has extensively documented both in Syria and beyond, such approaches have a poor track record of achieving their aims – routinely exacerbating the conflicts they claim to address.

Ironically, many of those governments now calling for restraint have themselves fed into the Syria crisis by acting in a similarly destructive way. The US failure to take responsibility for post-conflict governance or development efforts after ousting ISIS has been short-sighted and deeply damaging. A comprehensive and coherent European approach to the Syria crisis has been distorted by the EU’s narrow focus on stemming migrant arrivals. The resulting EU-Turkey refugee deal has served to embolden a Turkish regime bent on forcing refugees back into Syria. The Syrian regime’s brutal response to the initial protests in 2011, supported by its Russian and Iranian backers, and the cycle of violence that followed is the main reason for the mass exodus of civilians outside the country. Even the YPG’s repressive practices and forced displacement of Arab-majority communities in the name of upholding security is partly responsible for worsening tensions, and driving sections of the Syrian public to support Turkey’s offensive.

Long-term solutions

To prevent a humanitarian disaster, there needs to be a serious international effort to stop Turkey’s offensive in north-east Syria and reach a ceasefire agreement. The US should revive and leverage its faltered diplomatic engagement with Turkey to find a peaceful resolution. Following attacks on civilians and waves of displacement, the claim that a ‘peace corridor’ would be safe for refugees cannot be taken seriously. The grievances created by this offensive could spark future cycles of violence and instability, especially if refugees are forced to return. Just a few months ago, Turkey began forcibly returning Syrian refugees across the border to Idlib, a war zone under bombardment by the Syrian regime and controlled by the jihadist militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – an action widely considered illegal. Refugees must only return when they feel it is truly safe.

Furthermore, countries in Europe, Asia and around the world should put in place a moratorium on all arms exports and cooperative arrangements relating to military-equipment production and servicing for Turkey, and also put on hold any licence applications currently in process while the operation continues.

The situation will not get better unless sustainable long-term solutions are found. An overdue issue is the decades-old conflict between Turkey and the PKK. A politically-backed mediation process between them is essential for any long-term peace in the region. The US and the EU can leverage their relations with both Turkey and the PYD, and have the resources and experience to facilitate such mediation.

There should also be support to maintain the decentralised governance structures established as part of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. The multi-layered ‘democratic confederal’ administrative system involved city councils, district councils and local communes that took on public administration and services, albeit with significant shortages and constraints. However, while claiming to promote a bottom-up democratic example, power is largely believed to be centralised under the PYD leadership. These structures must be encouraged to become more representative and legitimate in the eyes of communities.

Finally, the UN must not allow external pressures to affect who it includes in its mediated political process – resisting Turkey’s efforts to prevent the PYD’s inclusion. Such moves can only reinforce marginalisation and exclusion, and feed into future cycles of violence.

A political process for the whole of Syria cannot produce sustainable peace if it does not address all conflict drivers. This can only happen if all the parties to the conflict move beyond their current militarised approaches, seriously address the structural causes driving insecurity, construct inclusive processes for mediating divisions and positively engage with legitimate public aspirations and demands.  

[1] During the Afrin offensive in March 2018, several families displaced from a separate Syrian regime offensive on Eastern Ghouta were relocated to settle in homes left by displaced families in Afrin.

Photo: Voice of America / Wikimedia Commons